An adventure with petroglyphs in Rockhouse Canyon – Anza Borrego Desert, California
People are a swirl of confusion and emotion. The main emotion is fear, which takes many shapes and many disguises. Trying to tune into people is complicated because they fill the environment with words that obscure the truth. We recently adopted a small, gentle dog and I’ve been trying to tune into her rhythms and get to know her as well as make her feel comfortable with her new family. My quiet little dog makes very few sounds with her mouth. She doesn’t speak words like people do, she breathes and she swallows. Listening to the new sound of her breath made me think about how intimate these sounds are. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this. I’ve experienced it with people.
In my camping adventures, I’ve had the opportunity to sleep near people I don’t know very well. It is a moving experience to listen to an unfamiliar person breathing while they sleep. You can hear a person’s health, the expansiveness of their lungs, and how relaxed they are in the quiet of the night. It is such an intimate thing to hear someone breathe. When you do, you are listening to the very essence of their life when they are completely free of pretense.
Since consciously tuning into my dog’s fragile sounds of life, I’ve made it a point to also listen to my children differently. While I still tell them that eating with their mouth open is bad manners, I secretly listen when they do it. Their smacking is the sound of little baby people taking in nourishment. Their mouths are helping their bodies predigest the food their bodies need to be vital. And all the while they are taking in and out quiet air.
On my recent hiking explorations of Native American village sites and shaman carvings in the rock, I’m usually very excited. The activity is physically demanding and invigorating, the hunt is exhilarating, the weather is usually extreme (strong wind or very hot), and discovery is thrilling. This charges the whole experience with a high level of excitement. To reach that moment of discovery after a long anticipatory boulder scramble up a canyon, for example, the first reaction is not to quietly meditate upon the lifestyle of native people. Because my adrenaline is running so high, the discovery immediately invokes dramatic fantasies of a richly adorned shaman, surrounded by exotic ceremonial objects, loud singing, frenzied dancers, and blazing firelight. In that moment it is easy to fantasize that prehistoric people lived in a exotic state of heightened reality, full of excitement, nobility, wisdom, and no small measure of fabulous feather and leather bedecked fashion. It takes a little time and effort to come down from the clouds and try to tune in to what was really going on.
I like to find a quiet, comfortable place to sit that’s out of the wind and sun. When I find this place, I know that a prehistoric person also sat there. How do I know? Because people are people and even prehistoric people liked to sit comfortably. Then I listen to them breathe. I know that they awoke to cold mornings and set about the task of living. Warmth, water, and food were required. Based on the environment I see, I imagine how they may have gone about fulfilling those requirements. Then I move on to their fears. Petroglyphs (carvings in stone) reveal their fears.
The morning I went hiking up Rockhouse Canyon near the Santa Rosa Mountains in Anza Borrego Desert, California, I had a two sentence lead on finding a possible prehistoric village site. It was something like, “After the dry waterfall a wide fork-like opening leads off to the right. That direction there is rumored to be the remains of a large village.” You can see from the photo above that the canyon has many “fork-like openings” so I did my best. In the “wide fork-like opening” I didn’t see anything that looked to me like a good place to live so I set my eyes on the plateau above. I scouted out the easiest way to hike to the top and, because people are people who do logical things throughout the ages, I soon found myself on an indian trail. Some explorers before me had stacked rock cairns along the way on the trail to mark the path. I always like it when people do this because it saves me anxiety. All I really want to do is find what I’m looking for and if someone from another time and place is able to let me know that I’m on the right track, I’m relieved and can just enjoy myself.
I emerged on a flat that had lots of yummy edible plants on it. I listened to the natives breathe a prayer of thanks for the food.
Hunter-gatherers have the perpetual search for food built into their name, don’t they? Looking at, what at the time would have been, a semi-arid, rocky landscape, anxieties would have included the wish for continual germination of nutritious plants, continual rebirth of game animals, survival and increase of their own tribe, and enough rainfall to support all of it. Fertility in all its forms would be the blessing that pacified most of the hunter-gatherer’s fears.
I looked for high prominent boulders closest to the spirits in the heavens where shamans may have recorded the tribe’s fears in the form of prayers for help. Think of the steeple on top of a modern church. It is an expression of this very same idea. It extends one’s prayers closer to God/s. (People worldwide and across time think they are so different from each other, but they aren’t. They all repeat the same cliches without knowing it.) My hope was to maybe find a small nook with some indistinct painted images inside or a few geometric carvings on a rock. What I found absolutely astounded me. I found many huge yoni/vulva/vagina petroglyphs created by enhancing natural cracks in the boulders.
The female — mother earth and woman — produces life. The holy man or woman of the tribe beseeched philosophical spirits for favor by carving wishes into stone and activating those carvings with prayer and offerings. Carving a female fertility symbol would not be sexualized, but rather would be a request to the spirits to bless the tribe with abundant food, water, and health.
One of the yoni petroglyphs was particularly spectacular. It had a yoni carved on each side of the boulder, possibly on top too, and rain water would pour suggestively over the sculptures on both sides.
The ground beneath the double-sided yoni petroglyph was blanketed with crushed quartz. Quarts is a magical rock that is thought to give a shaman clairvoyance to the spirit world. A shaman would sometimes ingest a quartz, or in some other way insert it into his/her body, to infuse his body with the power of the quartz. I suspect that this area of ground was not naturally covered with crushed quarts (although quartz is found locally). Since this is a high place that isn’t covered with quartz boulders, there would be no natural source for this quartz to have eroded from. I think it would have had be carried to this spot, crushed and scattered on purpose. And I think that purpose was to add power to this ceremonial site. Imagine how magically the white quarts would shine in the moonlight. Consider the transcendent effect a beautiful stained glass window has on the congregants in a church. The glowing quartz would have that same effect.
Another yoni petroglyph was in clear site of a phallic standing stone. A nice marriage of the male and female powers of creation as a person looks out over them and beyond to the canyon.
These discoveries were very exciting and I walked a fair distance beyond this site to better understand the environment. I saw several more yonis carved into boulders, but this one plateau was clearly the main ceremonial site. I tried to slow my breath and walk the land as a bored inhabitant of the village may have done on an ordinary day.
I found a rock shelter inside a hollowed out boulder with a giant yoni carved on its back side. I sat inside to get out of the wind and think. On a boulder protruding from the sand inside the shelter were two more tiny yonis carved into it. (Watch my video about this adventure for all the imagery.
As I sat quietly in the rock shelter, I tried to clear my mind of the idea that there were cities beyond the mountains. I tried to put myself in a time and place in which I was one of a modest population of people in North America (compared to now) and that I was totally dependent on the earth in my small known slice of geography for everything in life. I tried to feel my powerlessness. I tried to remember that I am small. I tried to appreciate that I simply have breath and that for all my imaginative thoughts about history and spirituality I am truly no more than a fragile, vulnerable creature that breathes, just like everyone else, just like the ancient ones. Someone might listen to me breathe in my sleep and have empathy for me. Or maybe I could just listen to my own breath and find there tenderness and affection for myself as I do for others.